Close vote

Tennessee House committee denies in-state tuition to 13,000 immigrant students

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students display their career aspirations during a visit to the State Capitol in March to support an unsuccessful bill that would have extended in-state tuition to them.

A proposal to ease the pathway to college for about 13,000 Tennessee students died by a single vote in a House education committee on Tuesday, as young people who would have benefited looked on.

For the third year, Rep. Mark White of Memphis had sponsored a bill that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, arguing that expanded education access would be a boon for all Tennesseans.

But opponents shot down the measure 7-6 after hearing discussion mostly in favor of it. Rep. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill. She argued that the policy would make Tennessee a magnet for illegal immigration.

About a dozen immigrant students had crammed into a committee room at the State Capitol in Nashville to witness the vote. Many were moved to tears by the outcome. The panel’s decision means Tennessee students who are in the country illegally must pay two to three times higher than their counterparts who pay in-state tuition to attend a public college. 

The scene was reminiscent of 2015, when a similar bill made it all the way to the House floor, only to fail by one vote because a Democratic supporter was absent.

This year, the measure had passed the Senate Education Committee and had the endorsement of Gov. Bill Haslam and the state’s largest college system, which stood to enjoy millions of dollars in increased revenue if it passed.

White wants Tennessee to join 20 states that allow undocumented immigrants to have in-state tuition. He argued that his proposal would help set the life trajectories of thousands of students, as well as their future children who will be citizens of Tennessee and the U.S.

“Most of these young people come from modest means. To pay $28,000 a year is out of the question,” he said. “I believe that it’s a basic conservative argument that if a person is willing to get up every morning, go to work, go to school, and better their life — that is what we have been about as a party all of my life.”

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
The vote means Tennessee students who are in the country illegally must pay two to three times higher than their counterparts who pay in-state tuition to public college.

Karla Meza, a recent high school graduate from Knox County, shared her story in hopes of swaying lawmakers on the fence. While most of her classmates at Powell High School could earn an associate’s degree for free through the Tennessee Promise, she pays nearly $10,000 a semester, or $697 per credit hour. Six credits short of an associate’s degree, Meza aspires to attend law school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“We’re all here today to better our future, better our state, better our families,” she said.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Democrat from Memphis who is black, said Meza’s struggle reminded her of her own experience as a young woman of being barred from attending many Tennessee schools because of her race.

Expanding college access has been a top priority in the legislature in recent years, and Turner said the bill was in the spirit of Drive to 55, a 2014 state initiative to boost the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees to 55 percent.

“The Drive to 55 didn’t say anywhere that we were going to discriminate against anybody,”she said. “Drive to 55 is for African-Americans, for Caucasians, for Hispanics, for all of the ethnic groups that make our state what it is.”

Arguing against the bill, Dawn White cited Georgia, which not only bars undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition, but forbids them from enrolling in many state universities altogether. “Overcrowding is going happen,” she said. “We’ve thought long and hard about this, but you know, right is right, and wrong is wrong, and I cannot pass the burden onto taxpayers of Tennessee.”

In fact, the 20 states that already grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants have not seen noticeable upticks in illegal immigration. And Georgia has one of the highest undocumented populations in the nation.

Mark White acknowledged the current political climate, in which President Donald Trump campaigned to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem immigration. But he said his bill is about education, not immigration.

“If I didn’t believe this was the right thing to do, I would not put our committee through this, because it’s hard. With national politics, it’s hard. But we’ve got these young people who say, ‘I just want to have a chance,’” he said.

Meza said she was “kind of in shock” following Tuesday’s vote but still hopes to attend law school in Tennessee.

“It’s disappointing,” she said. “The fact is, we’ve been here, we graduated from Tennessee high schools, and we do pay money to the state.

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students supporting the bill pose with Gov. Bill Haslam and bill sponsors Rep. Mark White and Sen. Todd Gardenhire during a visit to the State Capitol in March.

College Access

In-state tuition bill for Tennessee’s undocumented immigrants clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: TIRRC
Undocumented students from across Tennessee pose Tuesday on the steps of the State Capitol with Gov. Bill Haslam, Rep. Mark White, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Brought to Nashville by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the students met with lawmakers and lobbied for a bill that would give them access to in-state college tuition, regardless of their immigration status. The students came from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Johnson City, Memphis, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Sevierville. White and Gardenhire are the bill's sponsors.

Seventeen-year-old Nellely Garcia watched with elation Tuesday as a bill that would make it easier for her to attend college cleared its first hurdle in Tennessee’s legislature.

Nellely Garcia is a senior at Wooddale High School in Memphis and does not have legal status to receive in-state college tuition when she graduates.

An immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Memphis since she was a baby, Garcia traveled to Nashville during her spring break to support legislation that would provide in-state tuition to any student who attends a Tennessee high school for at least three years, regardless of their immigration status. The bill is aimed at students like Garcia, who has attended public school in Tennessee since kindergarten after her parents moved their family to Memphis without legal permission.

The measure passed 4-1 in the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee, with Rep. Dawn White, a Republican from Murfreesboro, casting the sole nay vote. It’s sponsored by Rep. Mark White, a Germantown Republican, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, who have championed the proposal since 2015. That year, it passed in the Senate but fell one vote short of clearing the House.

“This bill will give us a fair chance to have a higher education and pursue our dreams,” said Garcia, a senior at Wooddale High School. “We have the ability to contribute. We want the opportunity to give back.”

But Garcia understands that the legislative process is a marathon and not a sprint. The measure must pass a full House committee and a Senate panel before heading to both chambers. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

“This is the first step. We’ve got several more committees to pass, but certainly this is an amazing start,” said Stephanie Teatro, a leader with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, speaking to dozens of cheering high school students after Tuesday’s vote.

The bill is supported by most of the state’s public colleges and universities and, based on a 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University, about 72 percent of Tennesseans favor it, too.

Rep. Dawn White voted against the measure, arguing that Tennessee taxpayers should not give a tuition break to students who are in the country illegally.

Garcia has a different perspective. “I’ve lived here all my life. I may not have the papers, but I’m as American as my other classmates,” she told Chalkbeat.

But she likely won’t be able to afford college, she said, without in-state tuition, which cuts the cost of attending a public college or university by a third. Garcia hopes to study psychology or American history at the University of Memphis or Christian Brothers University.

“If I don’t go to college, my choices are really to work or get married. That’s not what I want to do right now,” she said. “I want to get in-state tuition like my other classmates.”

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.